Our current criminal legal system offers only one remedy when a crime has been committed: punishment. With the largest prison population in the world, the United States spends billions of dollars each year imprisoning and executing people. In North Carolina alone, about 66,000 adults are in prison or jail. And as much as the punishment system pays lip service to the victims of crime, it often ignores the central questions that might help create healing for people harmed by crime, their communities, and even the people who harmed them. But there is an alternative.
Who has been harmed?
Why did it happen?
What would help to repair the harm?
How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?
These are the questions asked by restorative justice, a growing movement that seeks alternatives to the punishment-only model. Restorative justice sees a crime as more than breaking the law; it’s an action that harms relationships and communities. The restorative justice process empowers those who are most affected by crime to have a voice in how that harm should be repaired. It promotes carefully facilitated dialogues that often result in transformation for both those harmed and those who committed crimes. The process typically ends with concrete steps the offender must take to make amends, tailored to the specific crime, its victims, and the community in which it happened. In other cases, it is used after the fact to help victims and offenders understand and heal from the trauma of the crime.
Right now, restorative justice is used in some North Carolina school districts — including Wake, Durham, and Chapel Hill — to keep children out of the criminal punishment system. A few North Carolina district attorneys have also begun to use restorative justice alongside the traditional legal process. In some cases, it has helped people take responsibility for their crimes while avoiding long prison terms, which are costly not just for incarcerated individuals but for their families, their communities, and the state. It might be tempting to think of restorative justice as a way for people to get off easy, but those familiar with the process say it makes far more demands on a person than the typical criminal legal system, where defendants passively receive punishment from a faceless system. In the criminal process, defendants sometimes come to feel like victims of a flawed system and avoid the difficult emotional work of taking responsibility for their behavior. By contrast, facing the people they harmed is a grueling process that forces them to reckon with the pain they’ve caused, accept responsibility, and participate in the community’s healing.
On North Carolina’s death row, some of the men have participated in restorative justice circles that allowed them to hear the stories of people who lost loved ones to violence. The circles encouraged them to explore the roots of their own crimes. Some people on death row say the process was life-changing, forcing them to understand the pain they caused in new ways. However, at present, only a tiny fraction of prisoners and victim family members are able to access a restorative justice process.
We envision a world in which the key questions of restorative justice are asked in every crime, especially in serious crimes that cause the most harm. We envision a system where families of murder victims have a voice in their own healing, rather than being told by the state that the death penalty will bring them “closure.” We envision a society that seeks to understand the causes and conditions of crime, and then implements evidence-based solutions to reduce its frequency. We envision a state whose response to crime is: How can we help to heal? Instead of: Who can we execute?
A LETTER TO LYNDA
In October 2019, Jason Hurst wrote a heart-felt letter recalling Lynda Simmons, a woman who had shared with men on death row her powerful story of loss and restoration. This is an excerpt from that letter, published with generous permission from both Lynda and Jason.
“I would like to say that I had a full understanding of the pain I caused immediately after committing the atrocity that sent me here, but the truth is, I had no idea. At least not until my participation in the circle group and having the privilege to meet Lynda Simmons. A courageous, forgiving, amazing person, Lynda shared with us how the murder of her son completely changed her life. There was not a dry eye among us and it was then that the destruction my actions had caused began to be clear. It was as if each of us in the room were responsible for the loss of her son and we wanted to be forgiven for it.
Over a period of several weeks, she listened as each of us told her as much or as little about what brought us here as we were comfortable with, all the while offering us comfort while surely reliving the worst day of her life. That whole moving experience opened up the idea that maybe the possibility exists for me to express how remorseful I am to the family whose lives I’ve forever altered. To assure them that not only am I physically incarcerated, but after being granted a view into Lynda Simmons’ life, I hurt internally for what I’ve done as well. I want them to know that.”